the knock at the door

August 18th, 2011

Yesterday I was rather lost and confused, uncertain which way to turn, when I heard a knock at the door. Actually, it was just the delivery of an email, adroitly timed, as all events, to give me clarity and purpose. I asked the writer if I could respond in a blog post so that our dialogue could serve others like us.

I heard an interview with you on the Buddhist Geeks podcast and found it very informative and enjoyable.  I’ve studied Buddhism on and off now for a few years but never really made the leap to incorporating it into my life.

Any place that leads you here is a good place to start.

 I was wondering if you had any tips for which “school” of Buddhism would be best for a beginning layperson.

First, let’s look at that word, “school.” There are no Buddhist schools, not really. The word “school” was probably used by academics to identify and define different historical and cultural approaches, but it suggests a kind of academic learning and institutional enrollment that is not applicable to your life. So I suggest you replace “school” with “path.” Everyone has a path in life – including the spiritual aspect of life – and the good thing is, you don’t have to find it. You don’t have to choose it. You  are already on it. The path you are on always leads you farther on, in the same way you were led here today. To walk the path, you just keep going, exploring, asking, seeking, finding, and this is the most important thing: trying. If you haven’t yet recognized your path it’s because you haven’t gone far enough to see clearly. We have to use our feet to get close enough for anything to come into focus.

Second, let’s look at that word “beginner.” We are all beginners. If someone no longer considers themselves a beginner, it’s time to start over. In the same way, create no distinction between a layperson and a priest or monk. It makes no difference.

 Zen seems like it might be a simpler place to start but I also read that it’s considered the most difficult. I’m a little confused.

Naturally. Reading or thinking too much about anything is sure to confuse us. Information is of no use if we don’t use it ourselves. Never let what someone else says preempt your own experience. So let’s take a look at that word “difficult.”

Many things are difficult. The first noble truth of Buddhism simply restates that fact. Life itself is going to get hard. So things are difficult long before we start out. In fact, we only get started in the practice of Buddhism when life becomes so difficult that we want to change directions. We practice because things are difficult.

Zen is not difficult to grasp. It is very simple. Maezumi Roshi once said that the reason Zen is so often presumed to be complicated is because it is so plain. Our heads are complicated.

And that’s where the difficulty comes from. Difficulty arises in our judging minds. We make things difficult by the way we think about them. Principally, the way we like or don’t like them; want or don’t want them; reject, avoid, or refuse them.  Zen consists entirely of the practice of meditation, which is the complete actualization of our true nature. It is only difficult when we don’t want to meditate. Practice is only difficult when we don’t want to practice. Zen practice dissolves difficulty.

I’m very much drawn to the practice of meditation and believe this would be a key factor in becoming more mindful.  I’m yet to actually sit regularly as I’m reading and watching plenty of videos and trying to find a consistent schedule to follow for practicing.

You are right. Meditation is not only key to mindfulness, it is mindfulness. Without a meditation practice, the mindfulness we are practicing is actually just thinking about being mindful, as in “I should be paying attention,” “I should slow down,” “I should be meditating.” That kind of thinking is powerful, but the power is latent until we take the first step out of our thoughts and into actuality. We never begin until we begin doing.

What is the best time of day to sit?

The time you have. For most of us, this is first thing in the morning and/or last thing at night. Freed from the flow of daily activities and interruptions, these times are already quiet and you already have them. We may not realize it, but we have complete control over the time we wake up and the time we go to sleep each day.

Just start for a short time. Five or ten minutes. Keep a watch by your side. It doesn’t matter how long you sit. What matters is that you start. Your whole future will flow from that momentous occasion, and you will know what to do next.

I don’t have a Zen Center near me.

Few of us do. That’s okay. That’s how ingeniously the Dharma works: it gets us out of a rut and puts us on the path. Start where you are, look at what’s around you, refrain from judging, and just keep going.  You will meet someone, or see something, or hear something that will lead you to the next place. There are no foregone conclusions. By all means, do not tell yourself that you’ll never find a sangha, that you’ll never have a teacher, or worse yet, that you don’t need one. You’ll find a home for sure if you keep your eyes open and your feet in motion.

Many thanks for your time.

My pleasure. When the knock comes, open the door and say hello. That’s all there is to Zen.

Subscribe to my newsletter • Come to a retreat • Fan me • Follow me.


  1. Maezen!

    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.


    Comment by Robin — August 18, 2011 @ 12:57 pm

  2. So wonderful to open the door this afternoon and see these words. Thank you.

    Comment by Kathleen — August 18, 2011 @ 1:15 pm

  3. Beautiful! Exactly what I needed – Thank you for this.

    Comment by Kelly — August 18, 2011 @ 2:03 pm

  4. Okay, your last line inadvertently had me laughing because my kids have been making up their own knock-knock jokes recently. And I’m sure they could make up a completely incoherent one about Zen.

    I do, all jokes aside, love your section about how we find Zen because life is difficult. That is so true for me. And then I find that I see the difficulties in a whole new light.

    Comment by J, Connecticut — August 18, 2011 @ 3:14 pm

  5. Thank you very much for your answers to my questions. I’m pleased others also appear to have gained some insight from them, too.
    I shall now continue on my path with a fresh perspective.

    Comment by Matt — August 18, 2011 @ 3:32 pm

  6. Sound advice indeed. Starting is the trick.
    And I have noticed, thru sitting, that when the knock comes, there is no need to open the door, because the knock is on the inside.

    Comment by Ian Miller — August 19, 2011 @ 10:31 pm

  7. After reading your piece yesterday, I was inspired to get up this morning and sit. Thanks.

    Comment by Paul Brennan — August 23, 2011 @ 4:35 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

archives by month